We only had two days in Chiang Mai, a popular northern Thai tourist town nestled within mountains and farmland, but we definitely made the most of our time there. Before leaving Bangkok we were warned the air quality in Chiang Mai was really poor this time of year due to farmers burning the fields in preparation for the next planting, and really poor it definitely was. While the constant smokey skies was an eyesore (both literally and figuratively), I do believe that during other parts of the year the city and its surroundings really could be quite lovely.
After dropping our bags at our hostel Friday morning, we browsed the tours they advertised and quickly filled up our 48 hours in the city–first with an afternoon visit to Toto’s Elephant Sanctuary and then a full-day jungle trek on Saturday. Before we headed off to see the elephants, Dom led us on the best walking tour of Chiang Mai’s old city. (I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether that’s sarcasm.) There were lots of temples, but we’re definitely temple-d out (as is everyone we’ve chatted with on our tours). The tiny streets in the old walled-in city were nice to wander around, but given the heat and smokey air we were happy to abandon the city for the elephants after a couple of hours.
I had never seen elephants outside of a zoo before now, and oh my goodness is it magical. There are four elephants at Toto’s Elephant Sanctuary, three older females and one eight-month old baby bounding by their sides. From the moment we stepped out of the van I was smitten.
After changing into traditional clothes of the Karen tribe, we fed the elephants hundreds of bananas (not exaggerating) before going with them on an afternoon stroll through the jungle. I’ve rarely felt so small as when I was tossing bananas by the bunch into the elephant’s mouth or following in their massive footsteps along the path. Once again I’m at a loss of words to describe the complete sense of awe I felt while in their presence, so I will pepper you with pictures instead.
After our walk we hopped into the river alongside the elephants and tossed water on them (and each other!) for their bath. Watching the elephants splash around in the water was surreal and I was definitely sad once they decided they’d had enough and emerged from the river.
All dried off we feasted on fresh fruit (pineapple and watermelon is everywhere in Thailand!) and said goodbye to our new elephant friends. I never wanted to leave.
We had an early start the next day with a rather windy (read: too windy) ride to the edge of Doi Inthanon National Park. Once again we benefited from booking a group tour that nobody else wanted to do and hesitantly set off with Padee, armed with a small machete, to hike through the jungle.
Padee’s reassuring chant of “slowly, smiling” led us through the least-cleared path (if you could even call it a path) I have ever trekked on. Luckily we encountered no snakes (which Padee cheerfully said were venomous) and thoroughly enjoyed our time with Padee. He’s in his mid-forties and has lived in his village of 300 people his entire life. He’s only started learning English the past three years while leading these treks and while he’s never been on an airplane, he’d love to visit Europe. The most interesting (and as Dom says, depressing) moment of our conversation was when Padee asked if Barack Obama was still president, and I had to inform him of America’s current situation. Padee had never heard of Donald Trump, and it really was an interesting moment of checking myself and my US/Europe-centric worldview.
At the end of the trek we were rewarded by splashing through a (very cold) waterfall and meeting a new group of elephants before heading back into town.
Since we booked our tours through our hostel (which doubles as a massage parlor), we received a free Thai massage and finally checked that cliche Thai tourist activity off our to-do list. About two minutes into the masseuse climbing all over my body and contorting my limbs every which way, I remembered that Swedish massage is the nice gentle one and Thai massage is…not. Needless to say, it was an interesting 60 minutes and I feel glad to not need to have another Thai massage anytime soon 😉
After our massage we headed out to the Saturday night walking street market, eager to squeeze every last minute of our time in Chiang Mai. I think I feel about markets the same way I feel about temples at this point…they’re quite nice but I’ve had my fair share of them at the moment.
We had an early alarm once again this morning and boarded a van to begin our three-day trip to Luang Prabang, Laos. We’re now sitting on the patio of Nomad Guest House along the Mekong River in Chiang Khong, enjoying the breeze and the lights of Laos reflecting on the river from across. Tomorrow we cross into Laos and begin two days on the “slow boat” to Luang Prabang. Goodbye for now, Thailand. See you in a few weeks for our final farewell!